From chapter 13 (Contact), Films from the Future: The technology and Morality of Science Fiction Movies
William of Occam was a fourteenth-century English philosopher, friar, and theologian. From historic accounts, he was sharp thinker, and a somewhat controversial religious figure in his time. Yet, these days, he is best known for the scientific rule of thumb that bears his name.
Occam was, without doubt, a religious man. But in his theological work, he challenged people to question the validity of complex explanations for things where simpler ones worked equally well. It wasn’t until after his death, though, that people began to attach his name to this type of thinking.
The idea that simpler explanations are more likely to be true than more complex ones goes as far back as Greek philosophers like Aristotle—probably farther, given the somewhat obvious nature of the observation. Yet it’s Occam’s name that we now associate with a “simpler is probably truer” approach to making sense of the world.
Ironically, Occam’s intellectual incisiveness was focused on making sense of faith-based interpretations of the world and how we should live in it. As a Christian, he was a believer in God (publicly at least), and committed to interpreting God’s will and actions, through what was written in sacred texts and what was observable in the world around him. He was a firm believer that the “ways of God” are not open to reason; he’d have probably got along well with Palmer Joss. At the same time, he was no fool. He realized that, where two or more explanations for something existed, the simplest, least fanciful of them was more likely to be closer to the truth.
This is, of course, something that every parent and teacher knows well. “The dog ate my homework” really struggles to compete with alternatives like “I forgot.” It’s this realization that simpler explanations are more likely to be true that has led to Occam’s Razor becoming part of the canon of twenty-first-century scientific practice. There are multiple definitions of the Razor (so-called because it helps cut away misleading ideas to reveal the truth), but most of these come down to stating that, when there are multiple explanations for something, the one that depends on the fewest assumptions is more likely to be the right one. Simplicity, in this case, comes about because we have to make up less stuff in order to explain something.
A more direct description of Occam’s Razor is that, if an explanation for something involves wild stories and fantastical ideas that cannot be tested, it’s probably not right. This is how Ellie invokes it when she first meets Palmer. To her, there wasn’t any point in talking about faith and belief, because it failed Occam’s Razor at the first hurdle. Faith, to her, especially faith in a higher being, relied on too many untestable assumptions where there were simpler explanations. And, while she discovered that life is often not that simple, the principle remains a powerful way of sifting out attractive but dangerously misleading ideas from those that better reflect reality.
So how does Occam’s Razor apply to technological innovation? Through the previous chapters, we’ve touched on emerging technologies that could transform our lives in the future: genetic engineering, gene editing, mind and body enhancements, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, geoengineering, and a whole lot more. Each offers the promise of a vastly better future if used wisely.
But each also comes with tremendous risks if used irresponsibly. And this, together with the multiplicative dangers of what happens when these technologies merge and converge, demands forethought around how to use emerging science and technology responsibly. Yet here we face a conundrum, in that the best we can do in planning for the future is to make educated guesses based on what’s happened in the past, and what we know in the present.
Here, Occam’s rule of thumb becomes especially helpful. Just as it helps weed out fanciful explanations of how the world works from more reasonable ones, it can also help separate fantasy from more likely outcomes as we think about the future. For instance, we can make a shrewd guess that future scenarios that depend on more assumptions and more fantastical ideas are less likely to come about than those that use fewer assumptions and are less fantastical.
This simple rule of thumb becomes increasingly relevant as we invest hard money in science and technology with the intention
of creating a better future. It’s often when there’s money on the table that the hard-nosed thinking starts, and technology is no exception. So, given the option of investing a sizable wad of cash in avoiding “gray goo,” for instance, or in preparing for the advent of superintelligence (both of which depend on a house-of-cards stack of assumptions), or investing a similar amount in avoiding health and environmental harm from new materials, Occam’s Razor would probably favor the latter. It’s not that gray goo or superintelligence don’t have some probability of occurring (although it may be vanishingly small). It’s simply that, because they depend on an increasingly tenuous number of untested assumptions, supporting them becomes more an act of faith than of reason.
Yet there’s a catch here, which is why Occam’s Razor should never be considered as more than an aid to decision-making. Just because there are simpler, less assumption-filled alternatives to imagined future scenarios, it doesn’t mean that more complex options will turn out to be wrong. What Occam’s Razor states is that there is a lower probability of options that rely on more assumptions being true, but not a zero probability. And this leaves the door open to more complex, more fanciful possibilities being plausible, even though they’re possibilities that have a much lower chance of being right.
In Contact, this is the hope that Ellie hangs on to as she continues her search for extraterrestrial intelligence. She knows that,
intellectually, the cards are stacked against her, that all she has to go on is her conviction that she experienced something real. But, rather than allow the same Occam’s Razor she used earlier with Palmer to defeat her, she is determined to discover something that will defeat the razor’s edge itself.
This, to me, gets to the very core of science as a human endeavor. Critical thinking alone is almost inhuman in its cold impartiality. On the other hand, creativity on its own leads down a path of fantasy and delusion. But when the two are combined, we have a powerful way of using science and the imagination to find meaning in the universe we’re a part of, and to chart a course toward a future that celebrates who we are and what we might become.
This is what we see playing out in Contact, and why to me it’s such a powerful reflection of the soul at the heart of science, not simply the process. It’s also where we see the “humanity” of science beginning to shine. This is where science emerges as a disciplined pathway to awe and wonder, and a rigorous way to develop new knowledge that enriches lives and empowers people. Here, it’s the humanity of science that also leads us to not just ask if we can do something, but whether we should, and, if we do, what the consequences might be, together with how we might ensure that they work to the good of society rather than against it.
As we’ve seen throughout this book, these are tough questions that demand careful thought and input from everyone with a stake in the game. When we’re dealing with science that potentially touches everyone, we all become stakeholders in the process. We’ve seen this with technologies that potentially change who we are: cognitive enhancers, genetic modification, body augmentation, and brain- machine interfaces, for instance. We’ve also seen it in technologies that might transcend us and lead to life that is beyond what we consider “human,” including intelligent machines. But what about technologies that may lead to the discovery of life that didn’t even evolve on Earth?